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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Paraphrase vs. transculturation

Tim Challies has recently blogged on The Proper Use of Scripture in Books. It is a good post with a number of important guidelines for appropriate use of Scripture quotations in books. In his description of kinds of Scripture which can be quoted, Tim notes the traditional three-way distinction of:
  • Paraphrase (also known as Free Translation)
  • Dynamic Equivalence (also known as Thought for Thought)
  • Formal Equivalence (also known as Word for Word, Literal Translation or Essentially Literal)
Tim also accurately gives examples of each kind of translation.

I have a quibble with one sentence (picky, picky, I know!!) in Tim's definition of paraphrases:
Paraphrase (also known as Free Translation) ... seek[s] to contextualize the Bible to the contemporary culture, eliminating the historical distance between the time the Bible was written and the time in which it is read.
Actually, contextualization (also known as transculturation) should not be a part of the definition of paraphrases. Technically, a paraphrase is a restatement of something within the same language. However, the term "paraphrase" has been used in a non-technical way for several decades within my lifetime to refer to a "free translation," which Tim correctly notes in his post. But it is not easy to define what a free translation or paraphrase, with its new meaning, is. For some, these terms essentially means any translation that is freer than they feel it should be. For others there may not be any pejorative connotation to either the term "paraphrase" or "free translation."

I have often thought about the definitions of different translation approaches and how difficult they can be to define and, perhaps even more difficult to follow precisely in actual practice. But there still is some value in the traditional three-way distinction that Tim notes. In reality, there are three areas along a continuum from very literal (formally equivalent) to very idiomatic (or very free). And there are no clear boundaries between these three areas. Some English Bible versions are difficult to categorize. For instance, Rebecca of Rebecca Writes just posted her evaluation that the NIV is a Dynamic Equivalent (DE) translation. Many agree with Rebecca. I, however, along with many of my Bible translation colleagues, have noted how pervasive formal equivalence is throughout so much of the NIV that I am led to call the NIV a Formal Equivalent (FE) translation. In actuality, Rebecca and I are both right. The NIV has qualities of both an FE and a DE translation. It is on the murky (no pejorative connotation intended!) boundary between FE and DE translations, which is really not much of a boundary at all.

OK, let's return to the translation category of Paraphrase (Free Translation). Just as there is no clearcut boundary between FE and DE translations, there is no clearcut (qualitative) boundary between DE and Paraphrases. There is, instead, a difference of degree. Paraphrases have even more idiomatic phrasings than do DE translations. The Living Bible (LB) was a paraphrase. It's translator, Ken Taylor, called it one in his introduction to the LB. Not too long ago Bible scholars revised the LB so much that it became a "true" translation. I deliberately put the word "true" within quotation marks to indicate that there is a fair amount of theoretical disagreement over what constitutes a true translation. Some people consider even a paraphrase to be a true translation. Many others, at least among Bible readers, do not.

What then is my quibble with the one sentence in Tim's definition of a paraphrase? It is this. Tim said that a paraphrase "seek[s] to contextualize the Bible to the contemporary culture, eliminating the historical distance between the time the Bible was written and the time in which it is read." This is actually not the case. What Tim is referring to, almost certainly, are instances in paraphrases, such as the following from J.B. Phillips paraphrase of Rom. 16:16:
Give each other a hearty handshake all round in Christian love.
That is paraphrase: It is not a direct (literal or "transparent") translation of the original Greek. But Phillips' wording includes more than paraphrase; it also includes cultural contextualization. The Greek literally refers to greeting each other with a "holy kiss." Orthodox Christians and an increasing number of other Christians do greet each other with a holy kiss. But today it is usually more culturally appropriate for Christians to greet each other as a church meeting with some other sign of affection, such as a handshake, or a warm verbal greeting. In Rom. 16:16 Phillips contextualized (transculturated) as well as paraphrased. But he would still have been paraphrasing if he had retained the original cultural sign of the holy kiss, used when Romans was written, since it is not a matter of cultural contextualization that determines whether a translation is a paraphrase but a matter of the degree to which a translation uses only natural, idiomatic forms of the target language. A paraphrase, as far as I know, never tries to retain the forms of the source languages in translation. Instead, it is worded only with natural wordings of the target language, even more so than a DE translation.

Some paraphrases include some contextualization, which Tim includes in his definition of paraphrase. But, technically, cultural contextualization is a separate, unrelated translation parameter from paraphrase. Some paraphrases are highly contextualized such as the Cotton Patch Version which even changes place names and people's names in the translation, so that the translation is set in the context of the Civil Rights era in the American South. Other paraphrases use little contextualization. It is possible for a paraphrase to have no contextualization.

Aren't we linguists picky?! Oh, I guess "picky" would be a word found in an English paraphrase, not a FE or DE translation! Perhaps an FE or DE translation would, instead, use a synonym, hmm, which one? Perhaps "meticulous" or "acting as a Pharisee"? Maybe you can come up with a more biblical sounding synonym for "picky."

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At Thu Aug 04, 01:56:00 PM, Anonymous rebecca said...

For instance, Rebecca of Rebecca Writes just posted her evaluation that the NIV is a Dynamic Equivalent (DE) translation.

I'm not sure what I think about the NIV. I acknowledge that the NIV is in the "murky" area. That's why I said that I think I agree with Ryken. My position is really fairly wobbly, and honestly, I don't know enough about things to have a firm position.

At Thu Aug 04, 01:56:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Rebecca, I noted your uncertainty in your post. And I agree with that uncertainty. I'm sorry if my own post over-stated your position. I didn't intend to.


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